Chopin Piano Concertos - Chamber versions - Kevin Kenner (piano) Apollon Musagète Quartet

Kevin Kenner (piano)

Apollon Musagète Quartet

Paweł Zalejski (violin)

Bartosz Zachłod (violin)

Piotr Szumieł (viola) 

Piotr Skweres (Gennaro Gagliano cello from 1741)

Słowomir Rozlach (double bass)

One of the world’s finest string quartets, the Apollon Musagète Quartet was founded by four Polish artists in 2006, in Vienna

Below is my review of the live concert given as part of the Master Recital Series 

19th October 2020 Warsaw, Poland

This fine new recording of these concertos by the same performers is available from the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute 


Fryderyk Chopin

The Young Chopin

Warsaw Panorama from Praga 1770 - Bernado Bellotto

 Piano Concerto in F minor Op. 21



Allegro vivace

I have spoken of the genesis of these two wonderful concertos many times in my reviews so shall not repeat myself once again, save to make a few observations on these remarkable alternative chamber transcriptions.  

The first performance of his first piano concerto took place for a group of friends in the Chopin family drawing room at the Krasiński Palace on March 3, 1830. Karol Kurpiński, the  Polish composer and pedagogue, conducted a chamber ensemble. One must remember that contemporary full orchestral forces were rare in the performance of concertos in Warsaw in the early 19th century. Versions for chamber ensemble, such as this evening, were easier to assemble, less expensive and far more common. Our music world is comparatively overwhelmed with riches in terms full orchestra availability and such a multiplicity of recordings. This consideration made this evening absolutely appropriate and even more enlightening.

The outer movements revolve like two glittering, enchanted planets around the moonlit, sublime melody of the central Larghetto movement, a love song inspired by the soprano Konstancja Gładowska, Chopin's object of distant sensual fascination. Liszt regarded the movement as 'absolute perfection'Zdzisław Jachimecki, a Polish historian of music, composer and professor at the Jagiellonian University regarded it as 'one of the most beautiful pages of erotic poetry of the nineteenth century.'

In this transcription by Kevin Kenner, the piano enters early as a gentle accompaniment. In the opening Maestoso, full of agitated urgency, élan and the spirit of the polonaise, the quintet presented an alluring seductive ensemble sound. From the outset, the movement was expressive in ardent phrasing and replete with youthful energy. The supportive string accompaniment to the piano was in perfect balance in terms of tasteful counterpoint, dynamics, colour and timbre.

Kevin Kenner

The Larghetto moved the heart, as it inevitably does, in dramatic lyrical contrast to the more superficial style brillant movement that preceded and followed it. The ensemble were subtle, tenderly expressive and eschewed any sign of cloying  sentimentality. Kenner blended the fiorituras seamlessly into the melodic line, like a perfectly integrated interior decorative scheme in the graceful and intimate surroundings of a maison de plaisance. Such refinement in this aria moves beyond Mozart into the deeper poetic dimension of nineteenth century romance. The brief emotional agitation of this illusioned heart as it doubts and fears the travails of love, was movingly accomplished. Kenner's eloquent phrasing and rubato together with  an ardent, longing cello counterpoint, led to a divine pianissimo conclusion 

The Allegro vivace was full of the joyfulness of youth and glistening optimism of the style brillant. Joseph Conrad (Józef Korzeniowski), the Polish writer of genius who chose to write in English, exclaimed in a story 'Youth! The glory of it!' 

The Rondo excited us with the exuberance of a dance of the kujawiak provenance. Kenner and the ensemble accomplished this with a fine sense of sprung Polish rhythm, delightfully light touch and brilliant articulation that cascaded over us like pearls on glass, a true jeu perlé. The great Polish musicologist and pedagogue Mieczyław Tomaszewski writes:

A different kind of dance character – swashbuckling and truculent – is presented by the episodes, which are scored in a particularly interesting way. The first episode is bursting with energy. The second, played scherzando and rubato, brings a rustic aura. It is a cliché of merry-making in a country inn, or perhaps in front of a manor house, at a harvest festival, when the young Chopin danced till he dropped with the whole of the village. The striking of the strings with the stick of the bow, the pizzicato and the open fifths of the basses appear to show that Chopin preserved the atmosphere of those days in his memory.

The horn signal transcribed for viola was brought off to perfection, as was the breathtaking coda. A marvelous performance which made me feel as if the work had been written specifically for this assemblage of forces.

Piano Concerto in E minor Op. 11

Allegro maestoso

Romanze. Larghetto

Rondo. Vivace

Chopin wasted no time in composing his next concerto. In many ways it too revolves around and exalted Romanze. Larghetto central movement. He elucidated its inspiration to his friend  Tytus Woyciechowski: ‘Involuntarily, something has entered my head through my eyes and I like to caress it’. 

He was clearly still emotionally preoccupied with the idealized young singer Konstancja Gładowska. ‘Little is wanting in Gładkowska’s singing’, he wrote to his friend following her performance in the Italian Ferdinando Paer’s opera Agnese, ‘She is better on stage that in a hall. I shall say nothing of her excellent tragic acting, as nothing need be said, whilst as for her singing, were it not for the F sharp and G, sometimes too high, we should need nothing better’. In the same letter written to Tytus in May 1830, Chopin describes the nature of the pivotal movement of this work. ‘The Adagio for the new concerto is in E major. It is not intended to be powerful, it is more romance-like, calm, melancholic, it should give the impression of a pleasant glance at a place where a thousand fond memories come to mind.’ One cannot help wondering about the source of these 'fond memories' and imagining the romantic nature and occurrences that may have given rise to them.

Paweł Zalejski

The authentically Allegro maestoso opening was highlighted by the fine musicianship of Paweł Zalejski, the singing first violin of the quartet. The voicing was finely controlled as was the timbre of the ensemble and the transparent polyphony with an obbligato piano gently replacing some of the missing orchestration. Piotr Skweres  playing the Gennaro Gagliano cello from 1741,  Piotr Szumieł on the viola and Słowomir Rozlach playing the double bass were all movingly poignant and musically refined in the long poetic opening to the concerto. 

Słowomir Rozlach

The subtle dynamic gradations were most affecting emotionally. Kenner produced long, legato and seamless arcs of Chopin's rapturous melodies. In this chamber transcription the interplay of instrumental voices was alluringly prominent and persuasive. Again Kenner integrated the roulades and fioraturas organically into the melodic line without blemish or any sense of artificial decorative attachment. The style brillant was quite thrilling and once more, the violin of  Paweł Zalejski and cello of Piotr Skweres  were deeply musical and touching in their gloriously placed and sung counterpoint. Here we were gifted a perfect balance of instrumentation. Clearly this was to be a special, perhaps transcendental night for the audience.

Piotr Szumieł

The Romanze. Larghetto opened in a superbly eloquent, sensitive and nocturnal mood with phrasing expressing the most profound nostalgia. We were carried into an ambiance of tender, intimate, yet on occasion, sensual reflection and emotional disturbance. Kenner took us on a love flight of both dream and reality, flowing unencumbered like an improvisation, unhindered. One is reminded of a skylark joyfully ascending into the azure, gliding in the currents of the upper air. The cello counterpoint was lyrically radiant. Two themes embrace like true lovers, simply at first and then increasingly embellished as is the way with such matters of the heart. Calm and elation danced. Yet there were broken agitato moments of fear, anxiety and disquiet, moments that yet passed like threatening clouds. Kenner achieved a true jeu perlé, the cascades of a high mountain stream.

Far right: Piotr Skweres (Gennaro Gagliano cello from 1741)

The Rondo. Vivace erupted with the joyful krakowiak dance, expressed with great animation and enthusiasm. Such energy inspired us here, the audience quite carried away by the irresistible forward momentum of Kenner's style brillant and rubato enhanced rhythm. Music was transformed into meaningful speech with glorious ensemble moments and a glittering coda.

The Warsaw premiere audience numbered around 700.  ‘Yesterday’s concert was a success’, wrote Chopin on 12 October 1830 to Tytus ‘A full house!’  Two young female singers also performed at the concert conducted by that controversial figure in Warsaw musical life, Carlo Soliva. Contemporary programming was unimaginably different to 2020. After the Allegro had been played to ‘a thunderous ovation’, Chopin sacrificed the stage to a singer [‘dressed like an angel, in blue’], Anna Wołkow. Typical of the pressing personality of Soliva, she sang an aria he had composed.

The other young singer was Konstancja Gładkowska. Chopin wrote as descriptively as always: ‘Dressed becomingly in white, with roses in her hair, she sang the cavatina from [Rossini’s] La donna del lago as she had never sung anything, except for the aria in (Paer’s) Agnese. You know that “Oh, quante lagrime per te versai”. She uttered "tutto desto” to the bottom B in such a way that Zieliński (an acquaintance) held that single B to be worth a thousand ducats’. 

This 'farewell' concert was only three weeks before Chopin left Warsaw and the subsequent November 1830 uprising burst upon the city. ‘The trunk for the journey is bought, scores corrected, handkerchiefs hemmed… Nothing left but to bid farewell, and most sadly’. Konstancja and Frycek exchanged rings. She had packed an album in which she had written the words ‘while others may better appraise and reward you, they certainly can’t love you better than we’. Only two years later, Chopin added: ‘they can’ which speaks volumes.

At the conclusion of our concert an immediate standing ovation. At the time I remembered a remark at a Masterclass given by Professor Dang Thai Son at the Duszniki Zdój International Chopin Festival long ago: 'The sign of a great performance is that at the conclusion there should be nothing left to say.'

This was such an exhilarating concert....nothing left to say.

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